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Small Town Values

Well into the new century, Fair Hope, Connecticut appears to be suffering from chronic nostalgia for the 1950s. Kids play baseball in a vacant lot, their home runs dropping into a field of weeds and lilacs. The pool hall does good business. The church hosts crowd-pleaser marriage ceremonies, the couples posing for photographs on steps of well-worn brick. Everyone is white; everyone looks happy. Except for when the train runs through, the streets are pleasantly quiet.

Like the other three towns it borders, Fair Hope is made up of thirty sections each less than thirty inches long. Its residents fit on my thumbnail; few buildings are taller than my forefinger. Fair Hope is an entirely realized world, growing up building by building in the basement of New Haven’s most unlikely miniaturist.

“This postcard right here is a postcard of a piano factory in Ivoryton, Connecticut,” Steve Rodgers says, pointing to a yellowed print of Fair Hope’s real-world inspiration, taped beneath its three-dimensional replica. “I built this in five days during a snowstorm week, just sat on the couch while my wife watched Project Runway. Tim Gunn’s dope, you know what I mean?” Steve, this miniature world’s divine creator, is giving me a guided tour of the four fictional towns connected by a working railway. He’s eager to show, though he apologizes for taking my time. Not a miniaturist by trade, Steve has spent the working half of his 34 years in the music industry—ten years touring with his brother, some stints with record labels, and a current gig as manager of The Space, an underage performance venue in Hamden.

But on his off-days, his fictional world comes first. “I get really excited, I’ll put in a fourteen hour day,” Steve admits, pointing to a grocery store without any right angles. “I probably worked three weeks here just building that building from scratch.”

Steve is a scavenger. “I’m a tag sale junkie, like beyond junkie,” he confesses. On average, he hits 15 sales a week—garage sales, rummage sales, estate sales. After an initial learning phase, he stopped using kits, so he’s constantly stockpiling his own materials. “Everything that I see, I’m always like, how can I use that in the context of a miniature world?” Steve says, taking me through his diorama. The baseballs in the field are cupcake sprinkles; the port windows in the shipyard are eyelets from childrens’ shoes; some of the buildings’ interior bracing is done with chopsticks. Steve’s always snatching up cast-offs and putting them to use. Out on a walk with his five-year-old daughter, he uncovered a huge, old railroad sign beneath a rotting caboose. The sign now graces the basement entry to what Steve calls “Trainworld.” “My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he laughs. “We’ll be out in the yard and I’ll start killing our bushes for the sake of making new forests in my miniature world.”

On the streets of Fair Hope—as on the streets of New Haven—fresh paint mingles with decay, but in Trainworld, Steve’s diligence, not nature’s entropy, drives disorder. “This is alcohol and India ink. Us real model-makers use this for weathering,” Steve explains as he pours dark liquid onto a strip of bass wood. Some buildings are peeling, and birds nest on rooftops and leave behind their droppings. Red brick is scuffed with sidewalk chalk. Days’ worth of Steve’s labor is not even visible. He removes the roof of the church to show me a rehearsal for the Christmas pageant taking place inside; he stoops down to eye-level to peek in through the window of the billiard hall, where at a tiny pool table a man is poised to hit the eight ball. Had Steve not pointed it out, I would never have noticed that the siding of every four-inch building is lined with pinpoint nail holes.

Steve’s attention to detail has paid off, earning him something akin to celebrity status in the world of miniatures: His creation was recently photographed for Model Railroader Magazine. But beyond the borders of Fair Hope, Pine Ridge, Tribute, and Graylock Falls, Steve couldn’t care less about exactitude. “I’m not a meticulous person,” he insists. “If you look upstairs in my dresser, you’ll be like ‘Woahhh…’ ” Nothing about him suggests precision. He punctuates his profoundest insights with colloquialisms, the backseat of his car could host a tag sale, and his hair is getting long. But downstairs, in Trainworld, Steve taps into a well of superhuman fastidiousness. “I was a Marine cadet for four years and I think it taught me some weird discipline thing,” he says. This value lives on as he sits at his basement desk at three in the morning, with a beer and an earful of NPR, counting receding windows on a black and white postcard with a magnifying glass and a toothpick.

A couple of times per year, collectors and miniaturists put down their magnifying glasses to mingle at their grandest gathering: the model railroad convention. Steve shows up to a handful of these events, mostly to buy material or to sell his surplus supplies. He describes the scene as an unlikely arena for middle-aged machismo—balding men in thick glasses dropping train jargon, pushing to the front of the display room with big expensive cameras while their wives wait on benches ringing the perimeter. “Every model builder is my dad’s age. The future does not look hopeful,” Steve says. The average train guy is a retired engineer, a current rail conductor, or a quarry worker. They tend to be a little overweight and a little overpatriotic. “I mean, I love the USA, but I’m not going to wear an American wolf T-shirt and be like, ‘Heyyy,’ you know what I mean?” Almost every miniature-builder picked up the hobby as an extension of a mechanical vocation. “For a lot of the guys, it’s all about, ‘Hey man, look at my DL109 New Haven. It’s only made from 1949 to 1950,’” Steve says, referring to a type of train. “That’s all garbage, I don’t like any of that stuff.”

Steve isn’t in it for the machinery or the affirmation of masculinity. For him, the heart of this solitary activity is a connection to people, and he likes nothing better than to sit down and talk trains with some of the great old-timers. He’s in touch with a wide network of Midwestern model-builders and corresponds with an old hermit living off the grid in Washington State, where he grows a special plant Steve uses in his miniature forests. But while Steve named his third town Tribute as a nod to those who came before him, Trainworld honors more than model-railroaders. As Steve leads me from building to building, he shows me that the real foundation of each structure is made not of bass wood or chopsticks but of bits and pieces of his biography. His uncle spent years inventing a lightweight bike model before uprooting his family to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Fair Hope’s bike repair shop is housed in a wooden A-frame. Steve spent his brief stint at a North Carolina boarding school smoking cigarettes in the shadow of a rusting water tower. “I always wanted to climb one,” he says. In Tribute, a line of miniature boys lean over the railing of a water tower, egging on classmates scaling the ladder below.

But perhaps the story best chronicled in the tracks and beams of Trainworld is the narrative of a region’s past. “I really love the history of New Haven,” says Steve, who has lived in the Elm City all his life. Pasted on the ceiling is an aging, arm’s-length map of New Haven rail-lines. “See that train yard, where the lines all connect? That’s Target,” he says. Hunting down inspiration and materials brings him out of the basement and onto his city’s streets. Working from a 1908 postcard, he once spent an afternoon searching the waterfront at City Point for the exact site of 19th-century oyster beds. The door of Fair Hope’s brewery is decorated with an old bottle cap he found when visiting the site of the New Haven original. But despite his interest in earlier eras, all of Steve’s towns are frozen sometime between the dawn of the railroad revolution and the rise of today’s Target.

Steve does not appear to harbor a 1950s fetish, however, and upon closer inspection, his layouts reveal a sense of humor in his approach to picket-fence America. Pine Ridge sports a red light district; Greylock Falls hosts a chain gang. Boy scouts march through a thick forest that obscures a circle of drunks and a lady with a shotgun. But these details are playful, not cynical; there’s a beauty to each of these towns, a blessed simplicity. This is Steve’s parents’ era, and for him, there’s something romantic about it. “I kind of wish I was around in, like, post-World-War-II America,” he says. “I feel like there was a lot of hope.”

Only toward the end of my tour of Trainworld does Steve remember the train. He unwraps a heavy locomotive and attaches a string of cars, each one unique. “I could have been a hobo, ridden the rails, done that whole thing,” he says, dusting the caboose with a whisk brush. And while Steve’s no vagrant, his earlier life mirrored the mobility of one. Out of high school, he and his brother took their band, Mighty Purple, on the road—or, more appropriately, the rails. “I traveled ten years of my life solid. Out of the state of Connecticut two hundred plus days a year,” he remembers. His band forwent asphalt for crossties, and Steve speaks with nostalgia of his train days, of travels up and down the coast, from Charlottesville to Boston, of being thrown together with strangers on fourth-class, 14-hour journeys. Train-life—the constant, blurred exposure to new landscape, days and nights spent swapping stories and smoking out bar car windows, always engaged and always taking in—suits Steve. But as he neared thirty, he felt the pull from train to town. He married, had a kid, and, for the first time, became serious about miniatures.

But when Steve left the bar car for his basement, he did not stop watching the world and gathering its stories—he merely replaced the blurry view from the window of a moving train with the precise inspection of a magnifying glass. In the steps of Fair Hope and the beams of Graylock Falls, the narratives of New England merge with his own story.

“Let’s show you nighttime,” Steve says. He hits the lights, cues the locomotive, and sets his timers. At first, nothing pierces the darkness save the glow of a lone fire in the backwoods of Pine Ridge. But, slowly, sounds begin to emerge and overlap—cows moo, crickets chirp, twangy bluegrass floats from the bandstand. Then, one by one, living rooms illuminate, light floods the pool hall and the rug shop, and streetlamps flicker and blink to life. Now comes the rumble, near-silence cut by a crescendoing thunder. The whistle sounds, the railroad crossing sign blinks red, the safety gate lowers across the main street. In rushes the train—its lights pass over Fair Hope, and in an instant, it is gone. Steve rolls up the sleeves of his blue and green flannel shirt and leans against the border of his miniature world. Five years ago, he would have been on that train, but since then, he’s realized that a moving life is not for him. He doesn’t want to hurtle past the world’s exquisite details.

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